The first time Gage Gubrud made the trip to Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas, he pledged to return.
On the eve of the 2016 FCS national title game between Youngstown State and James Madison, Gubrud — Eastern Washington’s record-shattering quarterback – was among three finalists at the Walter Payton Award presentation, given to the country’s top offensive player.
But Gubrud, who set a FCS single-season passing record of 5,160 yards and 48 touchdowns that season, was fixated on a different trophy, one EWU would have had a chance to hoist that weekend if the Eagles hadn’t fallen 40-38 to Youngstown State in the closing seconds of the semifinals.
Two years later, Gubrud delivered on his promise, but he’ll return to Frisco in an unexpected capacity.
When EWU (12-2) faces powerhouse North Dakota State (14-0) on Saturday in the national title game, Gubrud, who suffered a season-ending toe injury Sept. 29 at Montana State, will continue to aid budding sophomore quarterback Eric Barriere as he attempts to the win program’s second FCS title.
Watching EWU make its run to the national title and helping coach the dynamic Barriere has provided a silver lining for Gubrud, whose college career ended just 16 yards shy of 10,000 passing yards in his two-and-half seasons as a starter.
“Obviously, I wish I was playing, but this is going to be 100 times better than when I was in Frisco in 2016, because our team wasn’t playing,” Gubrud said. “Now I get to watch our team, watch Eric do his thing and our defense play hard. I’m pumped for that opportunity for us to win a national title.”
Gubrud’s ailment received the most attention – and temporary panic from EWU fans before Barriere filled in nicely in relief – on a team plagued by a rash of season-ending injuries.
Gubrud and fellow senior captain Mitch Fettig, a three-year starter at safety, were student-athlete faces of the program going into the season, both representing EWU at Big Sky Conference Media Day.
Fettig’s college career ended in the regular-season finale at Portland State when he ruptured his Achilles tendon while trying to shed a block in the first half.
“I knew it was a serious injury immediately,” said Fettig, a two-time All-Big Sky Conference selection. “When I found out my college career was over, my world slipped up from underneath me.”
EWU’s injuries began piling up early.
Sophomore safety and nickel linebacker Anfernee Gurley, a third-team All-Big Sky selection last season, suffered a season-ending knee injury in August.
Junior linebacker Jack Sendelbach, who twice earned Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Week last season and had a career-high 13 tackles against North Dakota State, also went down in August, with a back injury.
Junior left tackle Tristen Taylor, a 6-foot-7 310-pound wall, was a preseason first-team All-Sky selection who suffered a season-ending knee injury in September.
Senior receiver and punt returner Zach Eagle hasn’t suited up since his knee injury at Montana State in September. He averaged nearly four receptions a game before the injury.
Senior middle linebacker Kurt Calhoun. who had 132 tackles and nine tackles for loss in 18 starts, announced that his college career was over in October due to a spinal condition.
Senior defensive end and Cheney product Keenan Williams was a first-team all-Big Sky Conference selection before a leg injury at Portland State cut his career short.
Senior rover Cole Karstetter hasn’t played since suffering an injury at Portland State. The two-year starter missed the playoffs, but is listed on EWU’s depth chart this week.
Junior Tysen Prunty, who started nine games at safety this season, missed the playoffs after being injured at Portland State. He has returned to practice, however, and is currently listed on the depth chart.
Junior running back Tamarick Pierce went down with a knee injury in the semifinal win over Maine and won’t return for the title game. Pierce, the most downhill-style runner in EWU’s talented backfield, rushed for 550 yards and seven touchdowns on 70 carries, the best average (7.9 yards per carry) in program history.
EWU still ranked second in the FCS in offense at 44.5 points and 540 yards per game, yielded a Big Sky-best 16.8 points per game in conference and handled playoff foes Nicholls State, UC Davis and Maine by a combined 124-69.
“About midway point through the season, I quit counting (the injuries),” EWU coach Aaron Best said. “It seemed to be one a week or two every other week. It’s just that’s kind of the mentality that we have. It’s unfortunate guys are put in that situation.
“A lot of those guys were seniors that ended their careers with injuries. Unfortunately, that’s the crappy part of it all.”
The back end of EWU’s secondary took the biggest hit, but Fettig said he hasn’t been surprised to see Calin Criner, Dehonta Hayes, Anthany Smith and rover Kedrick Johnson step up big.
“I’ve never seen a team have this many injuries, and when you start to seem all pile up, you start to think about how you’ll do in the playoffs against great teams,” Fettig said. “But its been exciting to see young guys step up. I knew we had a lot of depth.”
With a once-senior-loaded team now littered with contributing underclassmen, Fettig and Gubrud are now embracing their de facto coaching role.
“This has been great for me in a lot of ways,” Gubrud said. “To handle adversity, see things from a different point of view on the sidelines and watching Eric.
“He’s learned a lot from me and I’ve learned a lot of from him. The things he can do physically, the things he tells me coming off the sidelines, so I’ve benefited from this in a lot of ways.”